The granddaughter of Alfred the Great came back to England yesterday – or at least fragments of a body returned, more than 1,000 years after the Wessex princess was packed off by her brother as a diplomatic gift to a Saxon king.
Tests in Bristol are expected to provide further proof that Eadgyth (roughly pronounced Edith) was indeed the woman found wrapped in silk and sealed in a lead coffin, inside a magnificent stone sarcophagus at Magdeburg Cathedral in Germany.
"Her brother Athelstan was the first king of a unified England, her husband became the first Holy Roman Emperor and her blood runs in the veins of every royal family in Europe," said Professor Mark Horton of Bristol University.
"Alfred's body disappeared long ago, bones of other members of her family are all jumbled up in Winchester Cathedral after [Thomas] Cromwell got his hands on them, so this may prove to be the oldest complete remains of an English royal."
There is no contemporary portrait of Eadgyth and few insights into her life. She was born in Wessex in 910 into one of the most powerful families in England, daughter of Edward the Elder, and half-sister to Athelstan, well on his way to being recognised as the first king of all England.
In 929 he sent her and her sister, Adiva, off to Otto and invited him to take his pick, sealing an alliance between two of the rising stars of the Saxon world: Otto chose Eadgyth. They had at least two children before she died in 946.
She was devoted to the cult of Saint Oswald, the 7th-century warrior king of Northumbria, and a scattering of monasteries and churches dedicated to St Oswald in Saxony may also map Eadgyth's lasting influence.
The monument in the soaring Gothic cathedral built centuries after her death was known as her tomb, but historians believed it was empty.
Then in 2008 it was opened by archaeologists during work on the building, revealing to their astonishment the beautifully preserved coffin. An inscription recorded that it was the body of Eadgyth, reburied in 1510.
"We know she was reburied," Horton said, "but the sarcophagus could have held nothing at all, or a few bits and pieces scooped up from roughly the area of her original grave. Instead we have the remains of one woman, of the right age. The smoking gun is what the tests tell us of where she came from." He hopes isotope tests on enamel from her teeth, and tests on bone fragments, will reveal a woman born and brought up in Wessex and Mercia, where her family moved between different palaces and strongholds. The water drunk or contained in food eaten in childhood laid distinctive traces which last for life and centuries beyond. Scientists will be measuring the bone and teeth fragments looking for strontium and oxygen isotopes which if strong enough should locate precisely the princess's first years.
The sarcophagus also held soil fragments and beetles, all being studied with the silk and the coffin itself by scientists, archaeologists and art historians, hoping to tease out more details of Eadgyth's history in life and death. Initial results are being presented at an international conference at Bristol University today.
Eadgyth's bones are believed to have been moved at least once before being reinterred in Magdeburg Cathedral in 1510.
The project to study them was led in Germany by Professor Harald Heller of the Landesmuseum für Vorgeschichte in Saxony-Anhalt. He said: "We are still not completely certain that this is Eadgyth, although all the scientific evidence points to this interpretation. In the Middle Ages bones were often moved about, and this makes definitive identification difficult."Other members of her family have proved remarkably elusive. Her spurned sister Adiva was later married off to another European ruler but the place of her death and burial are unknown and indeed the identity of her husband is uncertain.
Athelstan was buried at Malmesbury Abbey in Wiltshire. A tomb believed to be his survives, but there is no record of it being opened in centuries, and it is thought most probably to be empty.
Excavations were mounted some years ago in Winchester to find Alfred but although quantities of stonework were uncovered from the lost Hyde Abbey no trace of him was found.
Kennedy, Maev. 2010. "Remains of Alfred the Great's granddaughter returned". Guardian. Posted: January 20, 2010. Available online: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2010/jan/20/alfred-great-granddaughter-remains-wessex